Development of Democracy in Athens
The change from monarchy to democracy in Athens was a slow process. In 1066 B.C. the last king of Athens was replaced by an archon (a chief magistrate). The position of archon was nearly identical at first to a king. They ruled for life and had to be from a royal family.
In 752 B.C. the position of archon was limited to a term of ten years. In 683 B.C. the office was changed from one archon to nine serving for one-year terms. In 594 B.C. Solon was elected to an archon position. During this time, many farmers became indebted to money lenders who charged high interest rates. Many were getting forced into slavery to pay off their debts. Solon forgave all debts and developed a fairer system. He developed a council of 400 chosen from all but the poorest groups of Athenians. The poorest had no representation in the government, but they also did not have to pay any taxes.
The statesman Cleisthenes is considered the founder of Athenian democracy. He introduced a new division of the population of Athens into ten tribal groups. Each would elect by lot fifty representatives to the Assembly. This extended the representation and voting rights to most all male citizens in Athens. This laid the foundation upon which the Athenians developed a democracy.
In 462 B.C., the supreme tribunal of Athens, the Areopagus, diminished in its authority. The Areopagus was a council of former archons that acted as a supreme court and had general oversight of laws and government. The men on the council held their positions for life and were not accountable to any elected officials. With the Areopagus losing its power, a full democracy was established in Athens.
The Greek statesman Pericles then expanded the democracy when he was able to get compensation for service in public office and jury duty. This allowed many who could not financially afford to take office in the government to participate. This extended not only in theory, but in reality, the governance of Athens to all its citizens.
A unique feature of the Athenian democracy was the use of a lottery system to appoint nearly all public officials. Appointment by lot and short terms of office allowed most Athenians to participate in their government sometime in their lives. It also limited the ability of a person or group to gain too much power.
The Athenian government was a direct democracy. Any citizen could speak to the group to persuade them to their was of thinking. The assembly had to have at least 6,000 citizens in attendance. If not enough citizens showed up, 300 specially trained slaves would go through the town with a rope dipped in red paint. Anyone hit by the paint had to pay a fine for not doing his civic duty. Of the 40,000 citizens (at the height of Athens’ power), , about 30,000 lived out in the country.
The assembly met several times a month. They had a wide range of powers including declaring war, appointing generals, and deciding troop strengths and the amount of naval boats to be committed to a battle. The assembly granted citizenship, decided on foreign policy, and spent money on public projects.
Working in concert with the assembly was the council. The council had 500 members chosen by lot, fifty from each of the ten tribal groups. They prepared the bills the assembly proposed and carried out the votes of the assembly. They met daily, with the exception of festival days.
Another important position was the strategoi or military commander. Ten strategoi were elected, one for each tribe. Popular commanders, like Pericles, were elected year after year.
The archons were chief magistrates overseeing different areas of the assembly. An archon was chosen by lot and served only a one-year term. When Athens became a full democracy, the position of archon became more ceremonial than political.